By Alevgul Sorman* and David Merlaut**
A review of the documentary Demain (Tomorrow). An enchanting journey about confronting challenges for transforming the dominant narratives in our society.
Amidst doomsday documentaries depicting irreversible ecological destruction and the collapse of our social fabric, the team behind the documentary Demain embarked on a different mission. Instead of a frustrating finalé, they would present a puzzle of various alternatives for empowerment from everyday actions that have proven viable.
The documentary has encountered great popular success in France, with more than one million spectators. Its popularity can partially be attributed to the famous actress Mélanie Laurent, and the changes she has made in her own life since shooting the film. Yet, it has also been endorsed by activists of the French social movement Nuit Debout for creating synergies on reconnecting people and re-inciting possibilities of hope to confront unprecedented and ever more visible environmental and social challenges. Its success is also likely linked to its poetic scenery and emotional soundtrack, which reaches the imagination of people rather than a mere presentation of rational facts and figures. Overall, the movie achieves its goal of energising the audience with a “feel good story” and opens up the scene to enthusiastic discussions on how to take action.
The documentary deals with a wide variety of topics, offering a nice systemic view through five interlinked sections.
This section critiques large-scale industrial farming and its false narratives of “feeding the world”, a discourse also dismantled with great humour by French comedian Guillaume Meurice in a short podcast. It is shown that small-scale permaculture and agroecology, considered as “bizarre” by Nicolas Sarkozy, are not only more diverse and up to 2-4 times more productive, but also invigorate the connection between people and land in the quest for ecologically sound and alternative forms of livelihoods. Permaculture design calls especially upon innovation in associating cultures and appears to simulate a picture-perfect scene, far from its ‘dumb and dirty’ imaginary of peasantry.
Yet for some of us “armchair researchers and readers” it is also reminded that “urban agriculture looks good on a PowerPoint presentation, but it indeed requires hard work” (Malik Yakini). This implies the need to reengage people in agriculture, which currently employs a workforce of less than 5% of the total goods and services produced in the wealthiest countries, and to build visible connections to food production and ecosystems. This section resembles the work of the American ecologist Howard T. Odum (1983), highlighting the interconnectedness and interplay of elements within ecosystems.
Initially, this section portrays a techno-optimist message of replacing the current use of fossil fuels through mostly industrial renewables, which are shown as substitutes for heat and electricity generation. However, the controversial topic of mobility is cleverly questioned through the paradox of initiatives of “car-free cities” like Copenhagen while ignoring the issue of flying. Moreover, it is pointed out how the question of rural mobility seems forgotten as often the narrative is built for the urban elite and overlooks the issue of (de)centralisation and geographical lock-in.
The focus then turns to the question of sufficiency, specifically adjusting to lower energy throughputs. These are ideas proposed, among others, by Ivan Illich (1973) and through a French think tank that pushes for saving (“negaWatts”). We can only regret that the documentary does not dig deeper into the inequality of access to energy and only superficially mentions figures such as the consumption of electricity of a computer avatar being equivalent to that of four African people – a statement whose accuracy is far from clear. However, the message is honest in saying that renewable energy alone will not solve our energy problems, and that it is important to question overall energy demand.
Local currencies such as the Totnes pound and the Brixton pound’s £10 David Bowie note, as showcased by Rob Hopkins, are success stories in terms of their high communicative power and in raising bottom up deliberations on questions around what is money and who can create it. Demain discusses how spending 1 unit within a local economy at local businesses leads to 2.5 units of local work and activities, building stronger and more resilient societies. Contrary to this, in open monetary systems transactions flow out of society and accumulate in the hands of the few. As the famous ecological economist Herman Daly said, “anyone who says they understand money hasn’t thought enough about it.”
This crosscutting section promotes local, active and direct participation in decision-making and social change. A range of initiatives are covered, from the village of Kuttambakkam, in Tamil Nadu, which strives to overcome India’s caste segregation, encouraging empowerment and becoming the agents of change we want to see in the world, through to Occupy movements and other forms of disobedience. It is recognised that this is only the tip of the iceberg and that power structures need to be further disassembled; we see the recent case of the Panama Papers and the resignation of the Icelandic Prime Minister, and an investigation from Princeton underlining the political domination of the oligarchy as cases in point. Demain‘s follow up movie will centre on the idea of creating truly democratic institutions.
This final section presents the new Finnish education system, departing from former mechanisms of vertical and command and control type pedagogy, towards teaching/learning through autonomy and collective learning. The high level of trust replaces the need for inspectors and testing. And the diversity of content allows students to acquire skills like Do It Yourself (DIY), arts or communication.
In general, the documentary conveys examples from the Global North, yet there are numerous cases from small, local communities across the globe that have exhibited prosperity without growth with untold stories that we must learn from as well. Such examples are of great inspiration, showing how there are many alternatives – without over romanticising them – and visibilising how people are already acting as hummingbirds (“la part du colibri”), as states the name of the movement co-founded by Demain team members Cyril Dion and Pierre Rahbi that aims at building a humane and ecological society.
Similarly, we think the Degrowth movement offers a multidimensional critique enriched by practice and arts as demonstrated in its previous conferences and upcoming in Budapest 2016. Engaging on a journey of curiosity and consciousness, we can portray that change can be achieved – at any scale – through the individual, collective and political action, anytime, especially starting tomorrow.
*Alevgul Sorman is a postdoctoral researcher within the Integrated Assessment group at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) working on Societal Metabolism.
**David Merlaut is a PhD candidate in ecological economics co-funded by the engineering school Ecole Centrale Nantes and the business school Audencia. He is an active supporter of the Degrowth movement.